The Queensland Local Government Association (LGAQ) has rejected suggestions that the inclusion of prayer rituals as part of council meetings could expose councils to claims of unlawful discrimination or breaches of human rights.
In a letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia in May, LGAQ chief executive officer Alison Smith said the association would not be seeking legal advice on the matter of Queensland councils including acts of religious worship as part of their meetings.
RSA president Meredith Doig wrote to the LGAQ after raising concerns with the chief executive officer of the Redland City Council earlier in the year about that council’s practice of only inviting Christian ministers to lead ‘Devotional Segments’ that last for up to 10 minutes to begin meetings.
Redland City Council CEO Andrew Chesterman had told the RSA that he had referred the letter to LGAQ to “assist our response and inform a consistent practice across all Queensland Councils”. Also, he encouraged the RSA to contact the LGAQ directly on the matter.
Dr Doig asked LGAQ if it would seek legal advice in regards to the lawfulness of councils including prayer practices in their meetings.
In reply, Ms Smith said that, while the LGAQ represented the collective interests of the state’s 77 councils, the association had “no authority or jurisdiction to intervene in, or direct operational matters of councils”.
“The existence of provisions such as opening prayers or similar in council meetings Standing Orders, do not, on their own, expose a Council to any risk of liability for unlawful discrimination or a breach of human rights,” she wrote.
“For these reasons, and based on the individual and unique circumstances of all Queensland councils, the association will not be seeking legal advice on this matter as you have requested.”
Potential unlawfulness of the practice was raised at the Fraser Coast Regional Council in Queensland in January this year.
During a debate on the matter, executive officer Ken Diehm stated that, based on legal advice provided to him, the council’s practice of inviting only Christian figures to recite prayers to open meetings was “likely discriminatory” under the state’s anti-discrimination and human rights laws.
Also, peer-reviewed legal analysis by Professor Luke Beck of Monash University Faculty of Law concluded that “the practice of many Australian local councils of incorporating prayers into their formal meetings is unlawful” because such practices are not authorised by respective state local government acts.
In her letter to the LGAQ, Dr Doig noted that the LGAQ’s own policy statement of 2022 strongly supports ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’. In the section on ‘Representing the Community’, the policy statement says:
Local governments recognise the importance of all forms of human diversity to the social, cultural and economic life of local communities. It is committed to inclusion of that diversity, to enhance and celebrate the richness of community identity and capture the benefits of that diversity for the benefit of all.
The policy statement’s section on ‘Workforce Relations’ says:
Local government recognises the value of diversity of elected members and employees of councils to enhance representation of, and responsiveness to, the diversity of their constituency.
“I hope these are not merely empty words,” Dr Doig wrote.
“Local government meetings should be welcoming and inclusive of all people. In privileging one religious worldview, councils that continue to begin their meetings with Christian worship send a message that significant sections of their communities are not welcome.
“The practice discriminates against non-Christians and non-religious councillors, staff and members of the public, making them feel excluded.”
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia.
Letter from CEO Alison Smith, 5 May 2023
Dear Dr Doig,
Thank you for your email dated Wednesday, 3 May 2023 in relation to the issue of Opening Prayers at local government meetings.
The running of local government meetings must be in accordance with the Local Government Regulation 2009, and Meeting Procedures (Standing Orders) determined by each council. The Standing Orders generally outline the order of proceedings, including provision for an opening prayer or similar. It is a decision of individual councils as to whether they make provision for an opening prayer or similar and how this is managed. Under the Local Government Act 2009, when councils need to make a decision on a matter they must vote and pass a resolution based on the majority view of the council. This is the democratic process and not always will all councillors agree on the same matters. The existence of provisions such as opening prayers or similar in council meetings Standing Orders, do not on their own, expose a Council to any risk of liability for unlawful discrimination or a breach of human rights.
The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) is the peak body for councils across the state, our role is to provide advice, support and advocacy for our members. While the LGAQ represents the collective interests of the state’s 77 councils, we have no authority or jurisdiction to intervene in, or direct operational matters of councils. For these reasons, and based on the individual and unique circumstances of all Queensland councils, the association will not be seeking legal advice on this matter as you have requested.
Chief Executive Officer